Let's get that inevitable comparison of Sigourney Weaver's powerhouse Secretary of State Elaine Barrish in USA's six-part miniseries Political Animals (which premiered last night) to our own powerhouse Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out of the way. Yes, both ran for President and lost the nomination to a younger, more charming candidate; both were former First Ladies whose President husband had notorious extramarital affairs; both are seen as ambitious ball busters; and both can rock a serious power suit.
Still, despite all these obvious nods to Hil, the comparison does a disservice to both women. For just as many similarities as they have, there are stark differences as well (including Weaver's Barrish not having a daughter, but two sons.) But, the biggest difference is that Clinton's story is nowhere near as dull as the one that plays out in Political Animals.
It's a problem that is through no fault of its leading lady. Weaver's ability to work with any kind of material is nothing new. The stunning 62-year-old Oscar-nominated actress, who has been one of Hollywood's most versatile stars for nearly 30 years, only seems to get better with age. But even in Political Animals, which boasts an impressive cast that could carry its own weight if needed (thanks to the likes of James Wolk, Dylan Baker, and fellow Oscar-nominee Ellen Burstyn), Weaver's powerful presence still can't save the mediocre summer soap opera.
When we first meet Elaine Barrish, it's on the night of her concession speech — having lost her bid to the White House to a young, Italian Democrat named Garcetti (Adrian Pasdar) — with her smiling, supportive family by her side. However, it's not until after giving an invigorating, rousing speech in which she vows to American women that she will see a female President in her lifetime, that we really meet them behind closed doors.
And boy, are they one dysfunctional bunch. There's her pair of sons — the gay, drug-addicted, suicidal T.J. (Sebastian Stan), the put-together, politico-in-the-making Douglas (Wolk), and his demure fiance with an eating disorder, Anne (Brittany Ishibashi). There's her boozy, opinionated lightning rod of a mother-in-law (Burstyn) and her husband, former President Bud Hammon (a cartoonish, cigar-chomping Ciaran Hinds.) They all tend to say exactly what's on their mind, often in pay cable-friendly language. Within the first ten minutes, they utilize their place on USA by saying things like "homos," "s**t show," "douche," and "nutsack." So edgy.
Fast forward two years later, a now-divorced Elaine (she promptly asked her husband for a divorce after her concession speech) is down a philandering spouse (who is now dating a busty, vapid television star), but still has plenty of drama in her life. She's got her Pulitzer-winning nemesis Susan Berg (Carla Gugino) as a thorn in her side again when, years after breaking her husband's affair scandal, she inadvertently lets a story about T.J.'s failed suicide go public. (Her own cheating boyfriend/editor, played by Dan Futterman, gives the story to his blogging, cupcake-baking mistress. Oh great, another stunning victory for Internet Girls everywhere.)
Then there's also an ass-grabbing Russian foreign minister ("I will f**k your s**t up," she warns him in his native language) and a hostage situation in Iran with three American journalists to deal with. Still, Barrish manages to handle it all with ass-kicking grace. (If there ever was such a thing to possess, Weaver most certainly does.) By the time she tells a secret service agent in confidence that she's going to run for President again and win, you don't doubt her for one second.
And thankfully, viewers won't have to wait long to find out if that is the case. While Weaver (who might as well make space on her mantle for an Emmy now) makes the whole surprisingly bland thing watchable, the show (which aims for The West Wing, but hits the Dallas target instead) isn't necessarily worthy of her talents. There's no doubt the show will do well, especially as a summer program, considering it has three winning ingredients: graphic sex scenes, oft ludicrous dialogue ("Never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that"), and it doesn't take up much of your time (six weeks, to be exact.)
Political Animals doesn't quite know what it wants to be, ping-ponging between compelling, girl-power political drama and silly, ineffective family soap opera, but it gets one thing absolutely right: Sigourney Weaver cannot be tamed.
Political Animals airs on Sundays at 10 PM ET on USA.
[Photo credit: USA Network]
A Flawed Newsroom Rewrites History
In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.
Set in what seems to be an idyllic 19th-century farming township The Village follows a close-knit community as they go about their daily lives. Soon however it becomes evident things aren't quite so simple. The villagers believe a race of ferocious mythological creatures lives in the woods surrounding their little valley but there's an unspoken truce between "Those We Don't Speak Of" and the townsfolk: don't go into their woods and they won't come chew up the town. That's all well and good until the quiet and resolute Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) messes up the works. He tries to convince the village elders they need better medical supplies for the sick and that he should go through the woods into the neighboring towns to get them. The elders including Lucius' mother Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) advises him to stay put but the young man doesn't listen to their warnings and breaches the boundaries anyway ever so slightly effectively ending the truce. Uh-oh. Then there's Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) the beautiful and spirited blind daughter of the town leader Edward Walker (William Hurt) who captures Lucius' heart. Needless to say things get twisted pretty quickly (we are talking about a Shyamalan film after all) and it's Ivy who must eventually face entering the dreaded woods. As the menacing presence looms over the town her bravery becomes the only thing that can save them. But you'll soon be asking from what? There's the rub.
Shyamalan has finally made a movie in which there are no soulful moody eerily intelligent children in it. OK so maybe you'll miss Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment and his pale face or Signs's Rory Culkin with his big eyes just a little. But luckily Shyamalan has found a new wonder--newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard who replaced Kirsten Dunst as Ivy. As the daughter of the Oscar-winning director Ron Howard it's easy to see how she got her foot in the door but what's surprising is how affecting she is as Ivy. Playing a blind girl who must gather the courage to battle unseen fears isn't new--Audrey Hepburn was probably the best in the 1967 Wait Until Dark--yet the talented Howard's naturally blithe and spunky personality brings her own freshness to the character. Phoenix is also quite heartbreaking as Lucius who desperately loves Ivy but has trouble letting her know his feelings. His only way is by protecting her. Their moments together are exquisitely touching; all she has to do is reach out as the townsfolk scurry for cover from impending danger and he is there--no matter what. In the supporting roles veterans Hurt and Weaver as well as the rest of the elders including Shyamalan favorite Cherry Jones (Signs) and Troy's Brendan Gleeson do a nice job as the town's secretive leaders. But it's Adrien Brody in his first real role since winning Best Actor for The Pianist who stands out as fellow villager Noah a mentally impaired man whose own feelings for Ivy take a tragic turn.
In a way M. Night Shyamalan has become his own worst enemy having to live up to this reputation as a master of horror and suspense cloaking his projects in secrecy and generating unnecessary hype. But the fact of the matter is he is one of Hollywood's more brilliant minds on par with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman for originality who has an innate talent for crafting individual moments of genuine human emotions. Like Twilight
Zone's Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock before him Shyamalan is more fascinated by how people react in frightening situations rather than just scaring the bejeezus out of you--and with The Village Shyamalan delves deeper into human psyche more than ever before examining the age-old saying "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Having shot the film in southeast Pennsylvania the director meticulously built this 19th-century universe from the ground up with the wooden cabins and handmade props--and painting a picture of how fear of the unknown can propel a group of people to come together in harmony. Yet regardless of how the fear of big scary monsters brings the villagers together audiences may be expecting big scary monsters to come out of the woods and therefore may not appreciate the somewhat anti-climactic albeit twisty ending.